Best in the West: Building Blocks for 2023

Arizona Sports News online

The grass is freshly cut. Uniforms are newly cleaned. You can bake cookies on your car dash. It feels like it’s always 200 degrees out. And the sun seems like it never sets. Football season is nearly upon us.

Best in the West is back as we all anticipate the first kickoff of the 2023 Arizona High School Football season! Hop along for the ride as we preview the upcoming battles for schools scattered around the west side before they hit the gridiron.

 

Building on Momentum

A rising tide can be found near State Farm Stadium, but we aren’t talking about the Cardinals. After going a combined 1-27 from 2018 through 2020, Ben Kullos assumed control of the coaching reigns of Raymond S. Kellis in 2021 and made an immediate imprint as the Cougars earned an 11-9 record in the past two seasons.

 RSK came within a game of claiming their first region title since 2016 and ended the season 5-5 but ranked 31st in the 5A Conference. This growing program has its sights set on taking the next step as they look to continue building a culture of success.

“Our participation numbers are up across all 3 levels, we have been able to re-invest in our weight room, and locker room with plenty more on the way,” Coach Kullos told Best in the West. “We also have more athletes receiving college attention and offers than ever before. This group of kids is bought in more than ever to changing the narrative.”

Not only are Tristan Bacon and Ronald Coty III two of the most productive players returning for their junior seasons this year but they also both earned offers from NAU, the first DI offers to any athletes during Coach Kullos’ tenure at RSK. Alongside that offensive duo, Coach Kullos is excited to watch senior Michael Taylor and a 6-foot-3-inch Cayden Walker who enters his junior season as a receiver. And keep an eye out for the men manning the trenches. Carson Hutchings and Jacob Johnson return to the squad after All-Region nods on the O-Line last year.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars have big expectations for juniors Bryce Bacon and Tristan Bacon, as well as senior Jeremiah McClaren to continue their standout seasons from 2022. The trio combined for 142 total tackles and 13.5 TFL last year. Kellis is also looking for growth and production from junior Jason Perez, senior Junior Chavez, and junior Tiyari Yarbrough.

And to carry on last year’s spirit of a bet made during last season’s Media Day, if the Cougars can win the 5A State Championship, Coach Kullos will dawn a new tattoo.

Raymond S. Kellis begins their 2023 campaign on August 25 on the road against Independence.

 

Building on Records

As the Apollo Hawks depart for camp at Payson High School this week, they have a lot to hang their heads high about. After going a combined 9-19 from 2018 through 2020, AHS soared to an 8-2 record, region title, and playoff appearance in 2021. Riding a wave of momentum, the Hawks entered 2022 with high hopes but came up two spots shy of a state tournament seeding and relinquished their region title due to a five-point loss to Willow Canyon.

Now, Apollo is motivated to not only recapture the 5A Northwest Region title but also return to the state tournament, most notably behind one of the biggest offensive threats in the state last year, Adam Mohammed. The Arizona Wildcat commit averaged more points per game than anyone in the state last year, putting 204 points on scoreboards across the valley. Now entering his senior season, Mohammed looks to improve on last year’s 1,341 rush yards, 30 rush touchdowns, and 1,882 total yards (which includes the 218 yards he passed the football for).

But don’t sleep on fellow senior leaders on this Hawks squad like Michael Watkins, Kamarion Bell, Matthew Lado, and Trey Smith who have earned the respect of their teammates on this Apollo squad. Alongside them are some up-and-comers that Coach Aaron Walls is excited to see such as Jayden Colter in the secondary and junior Joseph Sumpter on both sides of the ball.

Apollo opens their season with back-to-back home games beginning August 25 against Sunnyside.

 

Building with Youth

Speaking of the 5A Northwest Region Champions, the Willow Canyon Wildcats enter 2023 with a youthful squad full of hunger to improve from one of the best seasons in program history.

A major hurdle for this team will be the youth of this season’s team, especially on the front lines. In their quest to earn back-to-back region titles, the Wildcats will begin their gauntlet with only one senior lineman returning from last year’s team.

2022 marked head coach Justin Stangler’s third consecutive season with WCHS above .500. Another massive milestone was accomplished by earning the 13th seed in the 5A State Tournament, marking the Wildcat’s first postseason appearance since 2011 and fourth appearance in program history. WCHS put up a good fight but fell in a 21-14 first-round loss as Cactus’ first win on their path to the 2022 5A State Title Game. Now with a foundation of success being constructed, WCHS seeks to maintain a winning culture with a young group.

A highlight of this season’s returners is free safety, Austin Rhodes. You could find the soon-to-be senior just about anywhere on the field last year with his 35 tackles, three TFL, one sack, and whopping four INTs that resulted in 144 interception yards. He’ll be a leader on defense both on and off the field with his young crew.

“We have a total of six returning starters so a lot of evaluation to do in the next month,” Coach Stangler told Best in the West. “This is probably the strongest we’ve been overall as a team. Having a dedicated S&C Coach has helped us and all of our athletic programs at WCHS.”

The Willow Canyon Wildcats kickoff their season with a pair of road games starting with a trip to Tucson on August 25 to battle Desert View.

 

The season is nearly upon us, so join in on the conversation on Twitter using #FridayNight360AZ and follow @Sports360AZ to keep up with the action from across the state on Friday nights!